FINDING STEVE McQUEEN: Interview With Director Mark Steven Johnson


It’s so nice to just shut your brain off and go somewhere else, and experience something really beautiful and magical. Off of your phone, off of your social media. I really hope it all comes back. Enjoying film together is a very communal part of our culture.

It isn’t often that you find yourself sitting on a cloud of pure delight at the end of a heist film. Yes, I said heist film. In the case of FINDING STEVE MCQUEEN, you’ll only find yourself anticipating the adventure, and that is reinvigorating for this genre.
Mark Steven Johnson
Mark Steven Johnson

This is the outrageous but true story of a group of men from Youngstown, Ohio, who attempt to rob a bank of $30 million in illegal campaign contributions made to president Richard Nixon.

This movie is not about Steve McQueen, but rather the tricky way in which we can become other people, if only to dare beyond what we see within ourselves.
I got to talk with director, Mark Steven Johnson(Ghost Rider, Daredevil, Grumpy Old Men) about his refreshing and new take on a previously formulaic genre.

Carla Sanchez Taylor:  I felt really good at the end of this movie. And it wasn’t the way it wrapped up but more about the lens with which you told it. What was it about this story in particular that made you want to adapt it?
Mark Steven Johnson:  I really didn’t want to do a heist movie. There have been so many done before and in such great ways. I felt I had nothing new to say. But then I opened up to page 1, and I realized we were in a flashback. The heist had already happened. That was interesting to me because usually the drama and conflict in a heist movie come from an active state of events. Your main question as a viewer is, will they get away with it? But I found myself wondering other questions like:  is she going to forgive him? Are they going to run away together? Can they survive all of this? I really liked that. Then I Googled the story and it struck me that it was all accurate, which seemed odd because I imagined I would’ve heard about it. I mean, a gang of guys from Ohio attempting to rob the president of the United States? It sounds insane. But there is a lot of humor in that.
I also love stories about identity, where people are trying to be something they’re not. To me, that is the theme of the film. The more I looked into the story the more flabbergasted I was that no one had ever told it before. It seemed so timely. It felt right and so I decided to do a rewrite of the script.
Carla Sanchez Taylor:  I really enjoyed the jumps in narrative. There were so many different aspects that kept me actively engaged. It was like putting a puzzle together. Did you conceive of it that way or was that done in the editing process?
Mark Steven Johnson: It was originally written in a linear fashion. But during the rewrite, we thought it would be more interesting to jump in and out of scenes.
It turned out to be a lot harder than we had anticipated. Because, when you get to editing, some scenes work and some scenes just don’t.
The task was especially difficult because of the unique nature of the heist; the characters don’t just break into a bank. They break into a bank three nights in a row. So all of the timelines and scenes had to be very distinct and punctuated. I think there are at least 5 timelines going on, which means you really have to pay attention.
Carla Sanchez Taylor: It’s good to keep the audience thinking.
Mark Steven Johnson: Well, you can’t be texting while you’re watching (laughs).
Carla Sanchez Taylor:: That can be difficult, right? Given the amount of distractions all around us. In this way, your movie made me remember the influence film had on its audiences. Do you think this is still the case?
Mark Steven Johnson: I do think it’s still the case. That being said, it is a different time. I remember we did a test screening and I saw a girl take out her phone and start texting. It was irritating because of all of the work put into this movie. Afterwards, I asked her if she hadn’t enjoyed it. She said that she had liked it so much, she had to message her friend to tell her to go see it. So these are the times we live in. You can’t easily put your phone down for 90 minutes to watch a movie. It’s so nice to just shut your brain off and go somewhere else, and experience something really beautiful and magical. Off of your phone, off of your social media. I really hope it all comes back. Enjoying film together is a very communal part of our culture.
Carla Sanchez Taylor: Yes, it’s a great unifier.So many components of this film seemed complicated to me, in the production aspect. But nothing was lost, including the tiny details.
The scenes were stunning – even the nostalgic way the sunlight hit, the vibrancy of the colors, the crispness of the sound. I guess it really made me wonder if you are a maniacally organized creative person. An oddity.
Mark Steven Johnson: I am a crazy organized person, but only in this part of my life. The rest is a disaster.
Carla Sanchez Taylor: (Laughs) There’s hope for the rest of us!
Mark Steven Johnson: When I sit down and write a script, I immediately start writing character bios, just for my own reference. They are usually about five pages long. I’ll document as much as I can about a character, all the way down to their most embarrassing moment. That’s important so that by the time I write the script, they’ve become real people to me. It’s the same when I direct. You’ve got to close your universe down or else, fuck, you won’t even know where to start. There are so many choices. It’s infinite. Once you’ve gotten to know your characters, it helps with everything from production design, to wardrobe, to scene.
Carla Sanchez Taylor: I imagine that being a director, you have to be pretty malleable because you rely on so many elements that are out of your control.
Mark Steven Johnson: It doesn’t matter if your budget is a hundred million dollars or 5 ½ million, it always ends up with me and a couple of guys in my backyard and I’m in high heels, putting out a cigarette for an insert shot.
You can spend months on a script. You can talk about the importance of this one beautiful scene with two people talking under a tree. You decide the importance of the tree, the significance and symbolism. You decide just how you’re going to shoot it and when. Then on the day of shoot, it’s pouring rain. And the next question is, what are we going to do? We’ve got to make a decision now. So yes, adaptability is important. At the end, it’s a miracle that it even works out because there are so many things that you’re up against. But then it does, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.

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